Have you ever been reading a newspaper and noticed a stranger reading it over your shoulder? Reading the news online is like having Google, Facebook, or Twitter do the same thing. Known as third-party trackers, these companies collect data about who you are, what you’re reading, and what you’re interested in, usually without you ever knowing it.
Trackography, an open source project developed by the Tactical Technology Collective, lifts the veil on the global tracking industry by providing a snapshot of the third-party trackers in over 2,500 media websites across 38 countries. Collaborating with partners around the world, we created an interactive visualization of these third-party trackers. By showing the route your data travels—from your computer to the servers of the websites and the servers of the third-party trackers—Trackography paints a picture of who is reading over your shoulder.
The goal of much of this tracking is to target us with advertising. Data about our online activities is collected and aggregated into profiles. These profiles tell third-party trackers who we are, what we’re interested in, and predict what we will do in the future. This might sound harmless. But a closer look at the global tracking industry reveals new and troubling power dynamics.
Trackography shows us that reading the news online is a more political endeavor than we might imagine. For instance, the data of readers of pravda.com.ua and vesti.ua, two national newspapers in Ukraine, travel through Russian network infrastructure. These websites have various Russian third-party tracking companies, like Yandex and Vkontakte, embedded in their front pages. Given the current conflict, readers of online news in Ukraine might be distressed to learn that they’re consenting to commercial profiling by Russian third-party trackers.
Media companies, too, might not realize how much data they are giving away and how little they are getting in return. Third-party trackers are usually added to websites by the publication’s IT department, for running analytics, for instance, or to increase the ease by which readers can share news stories.
Companies like Google make huge profits because of this—Google reported a market capitalization of $400 billion last year, some of it earned from user data, including the data they get from online media. Yet, while Google profits from this data, online newspapers are struggling financially. Giving away data to third-party trackers might not be the most responsible thing online media can do, nor the most profitable.
Unsurprisingly, the top three third-party trackers that we found in over 87 percent of the media websites we examined were Google, Facebook, and Twitter. These three companies are omnipresent on the internet and in our lives, and their outsize control over online tracking raises some fundamental questions. We know very little about how these three companies use all this data, or how they aggregate it [PDF] with other data they collect about us. Given this, it’s fair to assume that Google, Facebook, and Twitter collectively own more data about us than any other entity in the world. What does this mean for individual users, and for society at large?
Governments have a responsibility to protect us. Right now, aside from countries’ privacy laws, which were often created in the pre-internet era and apply only to what they call “personally identifiable information,” our right to privacy ends at these companies’ privacy policies, their terms of service, and their “I Accept Cookies” pop-ups.
The data industry is opaque. We developed Trackography to increase transparency around the global tracking industry so that you, the reader, can see which companies are watching you when you visit a website. Through just a few simple steps you can improve your online privacy and understand more about online tracking, from basic browsing protection to cleaning your cookies to adding plugins that block third-party trackers.